Ice Network

New-look Virtue, Moir redefine ice dance greatness

Canadian duo attains legendary status after capturing second Olympic gold
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By reinventing themselves after a two-year layoff, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir recaptured the Olympic gold medal -- and the hearts of skating fans everywhere. -Getty Images

Icenetwork will announce its choice for 2017-18 Person of the Year later this month. Here's one of the nominations for that honor from icenetwork contributor Lynn Rutherford.

When Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir returned to competition after a two-year hiatus, they had no interest in duplicating the skills and performance quality they used to win Olympic ice dance gold in 2010 and silver in 2014.

They intended to be different, and better.

"We've watched a lot of footage, we've really been studying our skating, and we feel there is so much room for improvement," Virtue said around the time of the team's comeback announcement in February 2016. "We had a series of conversations where we vowed to each other we both needed to be 100 percent in, we needed to be inspired and we needed to be ready to do things differently."

Differently, but just as successfully: Their sights were trained on recapturing their status as the best ice dance team in the world.

"Well, sure," Moir said. "We would be lying if we said we were just coming back to be part of the pack. That's definitely not the goal."

The London, Ontario,-born skaters -- who were teamed in 1997 at ages 7 and 9 by Scott's aunt, Carol Moir -- set about to recreate themselves. After training for more than a decade under Marina Zoueva and Igor Shpilband (until 2012) in Canton, Michigan, they turned to mentors and friends Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon in Montreal, seeking a new look and fresh approach.

"Our first meeting with Marie-France and Patrice, we threw everything at them, and they were so classy," Moir said. "[Tessa] was in shape, but I was out of shape, and I had mental things to work through. We could not have done anything without them. We would not have made it through the first summer."

The early years of Virtue and Moir's senior career played out like a fairytale: Two good-looking Canadian kids, coming into their own just after the international judging system (IJS) disrupted the ice dance world, where Russian couples had long reigned supreme. Their on-ice chemistry was so potent that many fans insist they are an off-ice couple, despite more than 10 years of denials.

Zoueva and Shpilband created technically demanding yet charming programs that masterfully exploited their skaters' strengths. Skating to the tender music from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg or Gustav Mahler's haunting "Adagietto," Virtue and Moir could break your heart as easily as they could spin off perfect twizzles. When they won gold at the 2010 Vancouver Games, they were 20 and 22 -- almost a decade younger than some other ice dance teams were when they were crowned Olympic champions.

The next four seasons were bumpy. Virtue underwent surgery in October 2010 to relieve exertional compartment syndrome in her shins and calves. The couple lost momentum to longtime U.S. rivals and training partners Meryl Davis and Charlie White and, with it, the 2011 world title. They regained global supremacy the following season, only to lose to Davis and White at the 2013 World Figure Skating Championships in their hometown of London and place second to the Americans at the 2014 Sochi Games.

"My impression of their free dance in Sochi (to a medley of Russian composers Alexander Glazunov and Alexander Scriabin) was in some ways it was trying to give a nod back to their free dance in Vancouver, all the while trying to still show the evolution of the past four years," said Tanith Belbin White, the 2006 Olympic ice dance silver medalist (with Benjamin Agosto) and now an NBC commentator. "I think it just didn't come together, and that's their words, not just mine."

For the next two seasons, Virtue and Moir performed professionally, refining and amplifiying their ability to reach audiences. All the while, the competitive ice dance landscape shifted under their skates. Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France, just 13th at the 2014 World Championships, won world titles in 2015 and 2016, captivating judges with their fresh style and youthful artistry. Where Virtue and Moir were romantic and athletic, the French were ethereal and fluid.

One thing stayed the same: With Papadakis and Cizeron also training in Dubreuil and Lauzon's Montreal camp, the Canadians again found themselves practicing alongside their biggest rivals.

"These kids, we train them five hours a day, we see them grow, we know what their goals are, and we just support that," Dubreuil said, sounding rather like Zoueva did when describing her work with Virtue and Moir, and Davis and White. "This competition is about them, not about us. In whatever order (they finish), it's the same to us."

Conventional wisdom held that while some judges might prefer the French team's style, Virtue and Moir's technical ability -- particularly in the short dance -- would prevail. It did during the 2016-17 season, when the Canadians won the Grand Prix Final and worlds. In the lead-up to PyeongChang, though, Papadakis and Cizeron upped their game, skating with noticeably greater speed and clarity. They defeated Virtue and Moir for the first time in December 2017 at the Grand Prix Final after the Canadians made what Moir called "a few uncharacteristic glitches."

The loss prompted Virtue and Moir and their coaches to take a fresh look at their programs.

"We went through every element and just thought, 'What could possibly be a reason for a judge not to give a +3 (Grade of Execution)?' We wanted to eliminate those," Virtue said in PyeongChang. "Looking at it that way gave us a different baseline."

Papadakis and Cizeron sat out the team event in PyeongChang, training with longtime coach Romain Haguenauer while Virtue and Moir led Team Canada to gold. The Canadians entered the individual event as slight underdogs but put out what they considered their finest performances of the season to edge the French -- who made obvious errors in their short dance, after Papadakis suffered a costume malfunction -- by 0.79 points to win their second Olympic title.

"We were trying to drive the power and speed more; we knew we would need that against the French," Moir said. "We're in great shape. We feel we have more power in our blades, more power in our knees than we have ever had."

To Belbin White, the Canadians more than achieved their goals: They won, and they were better than ever.

"In PyeongChang, it felt more natural, it felt more organic," Belbin White said. "In the past, it was like they were showing you a dream. In PyeongChang, it was, 'This is us, this is what we came to do, and we're going to do it.' It felt like they were putting themselves into the characters on the ice, and when you put yourself out there so honestly, it resonates."

Virtue and Moir own five Olympic medals -- two individual golds (2010 and 2018), an individual silver (2014), a team gold (2018) and a team silver (2014) -- making them the most decorated figure skaters in Olympic history. They also won three world titles (2010, 2012 and 2017).

"They've rewritten what an ice dance team can do," said Alex Shibutani, who won ice dance bronze with sister Maia in PyeongChang.

"They were born under good stars, they found each other at a young age -- it's a partnership that kept growing," Dubreuil said. "Twenty years of skating together, eyes closed they know what the other one is doing."

Belbin White doesn't hesitate to call her old Canton training partners the G.O.A.T.s (greatest of all time).

"I use that term in reverence," she said. "The facts are in front of you. What else would you call them?"